I’ve been thinking a lot about the 80′s lately and just how much that decade, more than any other, shaped my attitude towards pop culture. I was probably at the most impressionable time of my life in the 80′s, ages five to fifteen, and everything from film, television, comedy, and music, some of the most important things in my adult life, were shaped by this decade. There have been a number of times recently that I’ve heard a song from the 80′s and it will take me right back to a specific time and place during my adolescence, when life was just beginning and every moment, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, was full of all the heightened emotion of the end of a John Hughes movie, complete with emo soundtrack. Everything was new and fresh and vivid and everything mattered. Here is a list of some of the most influential pop culture icons of my day with all its guts and glory:
Pitfall, Adventure & Journey Escape
Video games were a big part of my childhood and that’s probably why I was inspired to write this blog after watching Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World last weekend. About halfway through the movie I knew that the director of the film was my age, or at least within five years of my age. I happened to be right as Edgar Wright was born in ’74 and I came along in ’75. His use of crude video game visual and sound effects took me back to the living room of the first house I lived in where I played countless hours of Atari with my brother, Brian. Some of our favorites were Pitfall, Adventure, and E.T. I remember when Brian beat Pitfall as he completed all of the hundreds of screens (that pretty much looked exactly the same) only to be taken back to the very beginning. That was big. A friend of Brian’s was the first in the neighborhood to get Pitfall II when it was released and I remember that Brian and said friend were nice enough to let me go to his house one day to play it. There were many many more “adventures” in the new game that included the ability for the Pitfall dude to float up many different levels in the caves on a balloon! There was also more than one background! It was huge. I also remember playing Journey Escape, which was based on the band Journey. The soundtrack to that game was the song Don’t Stop Believing, which upon hearing always takes me back to the basement of my cousin’s house, which was the scene of muchas Journey Escape game playing. Atari 2600, you gave us such joy.
Star Wars: The Original Trilogy
In my humble opinion, Star Wars should be on the favorite list of every filmmaker who grew up in the 80′s. This trilogy is probably the main reason that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was two years old when the first movie came out and probably didn’t see it until I was about six or seven when it played incessantly on HBO. The Empire Strikes Back was released in ’80 when I was five and Return of the Jedi in ’83 (you do the math). Brian and I collected many Star Wars action figures and toys. I had the Death Star (that’s right, a seven year old girl had a toy Death Star) and Brian had the Millennium Falcon and various other ships and things. But besides just having great toys, these films were important for a number of other reasons including, oh I don’t know, maybe its cinematic genius! A New Hope was the epic set-up to a groundbreaking trilogy. There are the obvious grand and brilliant elements such as the earth-shattering score by John Williams and the amazing special effects (yes, those were real explosions) done by ILM that made the film grandiose and larger than life. But underneath all those layers of score and effects was a story; the story of a young man who had suffered great loss and who found his purpose in leading the fight against an evil empire. This team of filmmakers brought us into their world of droids, wookies, and mystical planets and sold us on an oft told and classic tale of good vs. evil. These movies weren’t about special effects and people in strange costumes, but rather those things supplemented the strong story and powerful characters. They immediately pulled us into the magical realm that they masterfully created and compelled us to care about Luke, Leia, Han, Chewy, and yes, even Darth Vader. A New Hope proved that it doesn’t take an unlimited source of money to make great movies, but rather a team of people dedicated to excellence and a whole heap of creativity. P.S. Marcia Lucas, wherever you are, Hollywood really needs you back.
Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, and Eddie Murphy
My comedy education started at a very young age. I believe I started watching SNL around ’83 or ’84 and Late Night in ’85 or 86. I heard my first Eddie Murphy album at the tender age of nine. I guess my dad thought he was buying us a tape of Eddie Murphy singing the hits, but no, that wasn’t the case. Don’t judge dad too harshly, though, they didn’t have those clever little “parent advisory” warning labels back then. The classic album included hits such as Buckwheat, Doo-doo, and Hit by a Car. Ah yes, those were the days. If it’s any consolation, those bits were much tamer than Eddie’s later material! Some of my earliest SNL memories include the sketch with Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest who play janitors that try to one-up each other with ideas of self-mutilation while completing each other’s sentences and Phil Hartman’s Anal Retentive Chef. Some of the best years in SNL history were from ’87-’89, which included cast members and comic geniuses Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn and Phil Hartman. Not surprisingly these are the first years that Conan O’Brien wrote for this legendary show as well. Around 1985 I began watching a revolutionary new late night show aptly called, Late Night with David Letterman. My family had been fans of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson so I guess Letterman was the next natural step. I found his sense of humor to be fresh (from what I knew of comedy at ten years old) and it definitely appealed to my odd and early-shaped comic sensibilities. Although Letterman’s crude interview style offended many, I found it to be honest and refreshing. Carson was the consummate professional and could mock you while making you feel that he was still on your side, but Letterman took brutal honesty to another level while still staying somewhat personable. I believe that Letterman was also the first to bring the concept of the “remote” to late night. He actually LEFT the studio to throw things off of buildings and to meet the employees at the neighboring businesses including the one hour photo mat and the Hello Deli sandwich shop.
Michael Jackson, et al
I have an uncanny knack for remembering which year certain songs from the 80′s were released. Invincible by Pat Benetar from the movie The Legend of Billie Jean: 1985, U2′s With or Without You: 1986, Don’t Dream it’s Over by Crowded House: 1987. Most of my memories of these songs have to do with where I was living at the time of their release. My family moved around a lot in the 80′s (six times and three states between ’84 and ’89) and music became a sort of bookmark in my mind depending on the bedroom, friends, or emotional growing pains I was experiencing at the time. After my family moved for the first time in my young life we had a hard time adjusting to our new town. Brian and I, who were already close, spent a lot of time together during that time as we were trying to cope with the new surroundings. There were a lot of pop culture elements that we bonded to such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. Last summer when Michael Jackson died, there were so many cars that drove down my street blasting songs from his discography (which was awesome and I kind of miss it). When Billie Jean or Human Nature would drive by it would always take me right back to 1984, complete with all the mix of emotions that came with growing through a tough situation at the age of nine. The cool thing about those memories is that they also include the unforgettable time I spent with Brian, who is one of the greatest and most important people in my life. I didn’t know at the time, but those would be some of the last true childhood moments we would share together.
Days of Our Lives
There were many great TV shows in the 80′s, but none more memorable to me than Days of Our Lives. Of all the shows I was taken with in the 80′s including Family Ties, Cheers, Moonlighting and The Wonder Years to name just a few, it’s a soap opera that takes the #1 TV spot of that decade. You may be saying to yourself, “A soap opera was your favorite TV show of the 80′s?” and to that I say, “yes, it was”. Now before you totally loose all faith in my artistic sensibilities, just hear me out. I really think it was a different time for soaps in the 80′s and that there was much more time and attention invested in fleshing out the character’s stories. Besides, this is a list of what was most influential to ME in the 80′s so I get to put whatever I want on it. : ) It was 1986 when I began watching Days of Our Lives religiously and it had to do solely with the super-couple of the millennium, Patch and Kayla. I was eleven years old at the time and had never watched soaps except apathetically with my grandma when she used to babysit Brian and me. The chemistry between Stephen Nichols and Mary Beth Evans was astounding, even for an eleven year old and I was captivated by their characters and their story. It was the bad boy meets good girl story that we’ve seen thousands of times, but it worked because the characters worked and these two actors brought something spectacular and unique to this genre. I recently went back and watched some old clips on You Tube and was impressed with the writing, directing, and of course the acting. I’ve read interviews with both Stephen and Mary Beth where they talked about how hard they worked in those days. You can tell that they completely threw themselves into these characters and that they weren’t just going through the motions because they were on a soap opera. Like a good Robert Redford movie, the story took its time, paid close attention to detail, and gave us as viewers time to get on board with this relationship instead of just throwing us in the deep end and expecting us to swim. One of my favorite things to do with a movie, a TV show, or a script is to break down why something does or doesn’t work. Looking at the old Days clips makes me realize that part of why I liked the show so much back then and why it worked is not very different from why I love Lost today. Both shows (Days then and Lost) invested in their characters to make them multi-dimensional. If it’s not about the characters, then I usually don’t care about the material and don’t get involved. I stopped watching Days around 1993/1994 when I started college and when both Stephen and Mary Beth had moved on to other projects. It seemed like a good time for me to get on with my life as well.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little walk down memory lane. I know I did. I always like an excuse to reminisce about all-things-80′s and any excuse to bring up Lost, which has nothing to do with the 80′s. Stay tuned for more great podcasts!